TEMPE, Ariz. (May 5, 2006) -- Matt Leinart led Southern California to two national titles.
He won a Heisman Trophy. He hung out with movie stars.
But he couldn't help feeling slightly anxious on his first day on the job with the Cardinals on May 5. Leinart, Arizona's first-round draft choice, participated in his first practice with the team. He took the field as a backup for the first time since 2002, when he played behind Carson Palmer at USC.
This time the starter is Kurt Warner.
"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't nervous, but I felt comfortable," Leinart said. "It's definitely different sitting back, but it's a great situation to learn behind a guy like Kurt, just to kind of watch and see how he plays and look at coverages."
Of course, Leinart isn't a typical second-stringer, happy to be on a roster. He represents nothing less than the future for a team with little glory in its past.
Leinart is helping to create a buzz around an 87-year-old franchise that has had more home cities (3) than postseason victories (2). And it has nothing to do with the gossip linking him to Paris Hilton.
Five days after drafting Leinart with the 10th overall pick, the club announced that it had sold out its season-ticket allotment in its new retractable-roof stadium in Glendale, west of Phoenix. The team said it would reserve about 3,000 of the 65,000 seats for individual game sales.
Fan interest perked up in March when the team signed running back Edgerrin James, a four-time Pro Bowler, to a four-year, $30 million deal. The addition of Leinart has prompted full-blown Cardinalmania, or what approaches it in a laid-back sports town.
On May 5, a helicopter from a local news station circled the team's practice facility as players did nothing more than run through plays in helmets, shorts and jerseys. Thousands of fans are expected to attend the annual fan festival at the team's headquarters May 6.
"There's a buzz," Warner said. "Now we just have to live up to it, right?"
There hasn't been this much excitement surrounding a Cardinal quarterback since Jake Plummer, a product of nearby Arizona State, led the team to a 9-7 record and a playoff victory in 1998. Four years and 43 losses later, Plummer left to sign a free-agent deal with the Denver Broncos.
Plummer was drafted by the Cardinals in the second round in 1997 and thrust into the starting lineup that season. The Cardinals hope they don't have to do the same thing with Leinart.
At the moment, he is slated to spend his Sunday afternoons watching Warner, who is signed through the 2008 season. But Warner hasn't played a 16-game season since 2001. He has started a total of 19 games the last two years.
"Hopefully, (Leinart) doesn't have to play one down during the regular season," coach Dennis Green said. "That would mean that Kurt Warner is healthy all year. That's how we did it with Daunte Culpepper (at Minnesota). He never took a snap. We'd like it that way, just to get in and learn how we do things and learn the pro game."
Actually, Culpepper, the Vikings' first-round pick in 1999, played briefly in one game as a rookie. But he didn't throw his first pass until his second year as a pro, when he led the Vikings to the NFC Central title.
Leinart said he's content to wait his turn while learning the playbook and adjusting to the speed of the NFL. That can come as a shock to young quarterbacks, but perhaps not to Leinart, who spent five years in a pro-style USC offense that featured future pros such as Reggie Bush, the second overall pick in last week's draft.
Still, Leinart was impressed by the Cardinals' receivers, Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald, as well as James.
"I was very fortunate to play at USC with a lot of great players, (future) NFL players," he said. "But here, it's no different. These guys are the best of the best. Handing the ball off to Edge is pretty cool."